Today had been a total and completion validation of my decision to unschool PanKwake. For those of you, who may not be familiar with unschooling, my favorite quote is by Pat Farenga, co-author of the new edition of Teach Your Own: “When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”
And that is the key…bearable. One area and only one area where I doubt myself is…reading. PanKwake is nine and cannot read. She has excellent reading comprehension skills mind you. She can answer almost any question that you throw at her about a story you read to her…except things that would boggle any autistic child mind like: what do you think happens next, how do you think he feels. But when I use my fingers to track words or even purchase technology like read-along books and apps, she refuses to even track the words with her eyes. She cannot even accurately recognize all the letters of the alphabet.
I am a ferocious reader…and a writer. Imagine how I feel about the possibility that my incredibly smart and talented little girl might never share that love of the written word. More times than not…I feel like a complete failure in this one area.
- I could not read until I was ten myself. Words made no sense to me no matter how hard my teacher tried or the tutor that they got me from the local college. Then one day it just ‘magically’ clicked…and I went from being unable to read, ‘See Spot run. See Jane run. See Dick run. See them run,’ to reading Little House on the Prairie in less than six months.
- The exact same thing was true of my two oldest children, who were also homeschooled…and in a much more structured way. They were both angry because their four year old brother, whom we were not actively teaching to read yet, was looking over our shoulders and reading better than they could. And now both LOVE reading…and one has a degree, the other is studying to become a teacher.
- We put my other (adult) special needs son into school because we felt ‘unqualified’ to teach him and believed the ‘experts’ could do better. When he graduated, he is barely functionally literate. And for that expertize…he endured ten years of bullying. (I am sorry my beloved son…I do not have many regrets in this life but putting you in school is one.)
- I know and have read extensively on Piaget and child development theory and I know that PanKwake remains in the pre-operational stage and lacks the focus and attention to tackle something she finds this challenging.
- I can see all of the good things that unschooling has done for her…social skills that even few autistic adults have, better emotional regulation, and most importantly the confidence and happiness that she had lost when she was at school because of bullying.
Even though I know to the bottom of my heart all that stuff, I still feel like I am failing. Even though I am committed to waiting for those signs of maturity and development that will tell me she is ready to tackle it. Even though I know that she lacks the ability to transfer short term memory to long term…a brain development and growth issue that we await. Even though I tell myself that the more important even than reading is the ability to think and reason…which she does superbly. Even with all of that…I still doubt.
She came to me today and wanted to play with her ABC puzzle. That is amazing because puzzles are one of those pre-reading skills that have been lagging behind. So I would have been happy and considered it ‘reading’ to do ANY puzzle…but her letter one?!? Granted, it was about five minutes and I lost her, but that in itself is confirmation of those developmental milestones that we must achieve first.
If that was not enough, she then showed me her strengths by telling me that she was ‘beta’ testing a new design in Minecraft and please do not turn off her television as she was ‘multi-tasking.’ How can any teacher, even a kiss-ass one like my daughter will be or my son is, support those strengths while minimizing her challenges? Especially when they are under pressure from bureaucrats to meet standardized test scores that have nothing to do with the needs of the individual child.
To top it off, when her carer was here…she agreed to do it again with her. One of the other puzzles was strewn across the floor so I suggested that they could do that one together and help clean up at the same time. Of course being autistic she wanted to repeat her earlier success and do the same one we had earlier. Fair enough. So I begin to clean up the other one. She looks up and sees that I have more of mine put together than she does. She comments that it because I have fewer pieces. Her carer, who is studying to become a teacher with her older sister, comments that it is the same number of letters. But you see my pieces were bigger, so thus she thought there were less of them. The very idea of conservation of mass/space that Piaget sees as a key marker between pre-operational and operational thinking. I pointed that out to my carer, who was rightly impressed.
And in that moment I knew…unschooling…allowing her brain to grow…and awaiting key child development milestones that harken reading readiness was the absolute right and best choice for PanKwake. And home educating is the only place with the freedom from national standards, one size fits all/no one, and standardized testing that is failing not just our autistic and special needs children, but all of our children, our families, dedicated teachers, the schools and especially our society.
And today is why I believe that unschooling offers a brilliant way forward for many of our children on the autistic spectrum.
Like pieces of a puzzle that just magically fit together. It will all magically come together…one day…in her time.